During a severe ice storm over the United Kingdom, the Thames freezes over for the first time since 1888. Food rationing is introduced; Winston Churchill replaces Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister and makes his “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech.
It is 1940 and among these momentous events, in a small factory in Hayden Road in Nottingham, the Second World War claims a minor business. As the Battle of Britain begins, Brough Superior motorcycles closes down.
The same thing happened to hundreds of small businesses, of course, but there was something unique about that closure in Nottingham. With it died a style of motorcycle that was not to be resurrected after the war, like so many other marques. George Brough did not feel that it would be possible to achieve the quality he demanded.
Brough Superiors were, very simply, more than motorcycles. They were the last of the ‘gentleman’s conveyances’, a soubriquet that fitted them even better than ‘the Rolls Royce of motorcycles’: they were far more exclusive than the cars. The only other marque I can think of that might have warranted the tag is Crocker, which closed two years after Brough.
Have Mark Upham and Thierry Henriette managed what Brough himself did not think was possible, and achieved it in, of all places, France? Can Boxer Design in Toulouse and engine builder Akira in Bayonne match not only the qualities but the mythos of the originals? Are the new Broughs worthy of the classic lettering on the tank, and has the ‘gentleman’s conveyance’ returned to the roads of the world?
I have admired the new Broughs in photos and at international motorcycle shows, but in the end, there was only one way to be sure what they were about and that was to ride one. As it turned out I managed to ride two, a Pendine Sands Racer and an SS100. What follows is not intended to be a road test; I had the bikes for a couple of hours and less than 100 kilometres.
During the handover chat, Australian importer Fred Drake told me that the bikes draw attention wherever they appear, from both motorcyclists and non-riders. I can well believe that; even someone who has no interest whatever in bikes will be fascinated by the sheer perfection of the engineering and workmanship. Made eminently obvious by the ultra-spare construction of the bikes (there is nothing unnecessary here), the frame and other parts all gleam with purpose.
The new Broughs feel smaller than they appear. I suspect they look larger because there is so much to see on them, all the billet alloy parts clearly obvious.
I fired up the yellow Pendine and the bike started without hesitation. It quickly settles into a somehow chunky idle, and you quickly notice their second unique aspect after the workmanship. The bikes – the SS100 proved to be the same — create a hard, hammer-like rolling engine noise. But that’s all. Unlike any other motorcycle I have ridden, they do not seem to produce secondary noise. No gear whine, no chain howl, no nothing. What you get is what you hear: a somehow ego-lifting hammering.
The liquid cooled 997cc, 88 degree vee twin engine with its 11:1 compression ratio produces 75kW at 9600rpm and 87Nm at 7300rpm in Euro 4 form. The engine allows the bikes to ‘proceed swiftly’ without in any way challenging the performance of a modern sports bike. The ‘Racer’ in Pendine Sands Racer is an historical honorific not a description. The aviation-derived Beringer brakes work effectively and unobtrusively, which is how I like my brakes to work. The clutch pull is light and the weight distribution is 50/50.
Almost like the originals, none of the new Brough Superiors seem to be quite alike. My Pendine Sands Racer, for instance, had a high pipe on the right which did its best to barbecue my thigh. A lower pipe seems to be fitted to most other Pendines. I would recommend that, and not just in summery Florida-like Queensland.
Both bikes pulled away comfortably from a standing start and turned into corners securely and smoothly. The 19-inch front wheel of the Pendine, matched by a 17-inch rear as against the SS100’s 18/18, makes it a little more ‘tippy’ at walking speed, but that is just about the only difference between the bikes. The odd-looking but clearly competent Fior front suspension with its twin articulated triangular titanium links copes well with even deep potholes, as does the rear monoshock. Both are adjustable for preload and rebound.
What I am saying here is that the new Brough Superiors stand out by the sparse beauty of their engineering, their outstanding quality (and uniqueness) of parts and workmanship, and that wonderful sound. They are neither performance bikes nor long-distance tourers. But they are, dare I say it, ‘gentleman’s conveyances’.
As for price… you know what they say: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Just like their predecessors, the new Brough Superiors cost much the same as a somewhat above-average annual income.
A word about the use of ‘gentleman’ in this story. I employ it because it formed part of the phrase in common usage at the time. It is not intended to be exclusive of women. Brough Superior Motorcycles itself has gone to some lengths to remove any gender exclusivity in its brochures. Female riders are featured in photos, and their relatively slim figures suit the surprisingly delicate-looking motorcycles well.
Londoner Jean Knight is a good example of a female Brough rider. She bought hers as a garage find back in the early ‘60s because she couldn’t afford a car, and even once she could she kept the SS100 for, as she puts it, “high days and holidays”.
I suspect that we will see the Thames freeze over again before another marque emerges to claim the title of ‘gentleman’s conveyance’. In the meantime, let us celebrate Brough Superior Motorcycles. And if you are bemoaning the fact that you’ll never be able to afford one, consider that (like me) you are probably not a gentleman anyway. And console yourself with the thought that most of the buyers of the new Brough Superiors will not be, either. They will just be rich.
(Photos Brough Superior; my thanks to Fred Drake of Brough Superior Motorcycles Australia for allowing me to ride the bikes.)